Professional athletes and physical therapy patients are crawling like babies for exercise
Experts weigh the pros and cons of crawling
On any given morning, as the sun peeks over the horizon, Danielle Johnson can be found crawling down the hallways of her Rochester, Minnesota, home.
It may sound bizarre, but Johnson crawls every day to strengthen her core muscle groups.
“You can crawl in many ways. You can crawl on your hands and knees. You can also prop up on your toes and just hover, one or two inches above the ground, which is really going to pull in those core muscles and work those muscles effectively,” said Johnson, a physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.
“Then, as you start to move, you’re working on your shoulder girdle, you’re working on your hips,” she said. “If I could give one exercise to almost everybody, this would be it.”
Crawling has been used as a physical therapy tool, Johnson said, and now it has been adopted for strengthening and fitness.
The idea of turning crawling like a baby into exercise has been championed by the training system Original Strength, which repurposes fundamental movements into a fitness regimen.
According to Original Strength, when you crawl, you’re “pressing reset” on your central nervous system and revisiting the mobility patterns you learned as a baby.
Patterns such as crawling not only require motor skills, they involve the vestibular system, a sensory system associated with balance and spatial orientation, said Justin Klein, a chiropractor and CEO of Got Your Back Total Health in Washington, who has incorporated crawling into his practice.
“It’s like resetting the central loop in the nervous system to bring all of the parts involved in coordination, movement and reflexive stability into synchronization,” Klein said.
“You have to really work to be able to breathe, keep your head up and crawl at the same time, all while keeping your pattern,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing where, if you are being really mindful within your crawl, it is harder than it looks.”
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Klein always recommends crawling as exercise to his patients, he said, from professional athletes to those injured in car accidents.
Denard Span, a center fielder for the San Francisco Giants, has included crawling in his strength and conditioning training, Klein said. When Span was with the Washington Nationals, he was Klein’s patient and learned how crawling translates directly with movements used in baseball, such as a certain cross-crawl pattern seen in throwing and batting.
To spread the word, Klein hosted a Crawl on the Mall event this month in which participants crawled the National Mall.
But as Klein, Johnson and other enthusiasts insist that the crawling movement will help your body regain the strength, mobility and stability you had in your youth, other experts remain skeptical.
Questioning the crawl
More research is needed to scientifically support the argument that crawling “resets” your central nervous system, at least within the physician community, said Dr. Scott Simpson, a faculty member at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, who specializes in sports medicine at Stony Brook Orthopaedic Associates.
“To me, the benefit is that it’s an efficient exercise,” Simpson said of crawling, adding that he hadn’t heard of the exercise before now.
“Based on the position you are in when you’re crawling, you have to contract your abdominal muscles, and you also have to use your back muscles and your other core muscles to maintain that position and propel yourself,” he said. “My one word of caution would be for anyone with knee pain. Crawling on your hands and knees is rough on the knees, but there are some types of crawling exercises where you are up on your feet rather than your knees, which would be safer for the knees.”
Crawling also should be avoided if you have wrist, shoulder or neck issues, said Jacque Crockford, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise.
She added that crawling on all fours, with the knees off the floor, further activates the core muscles and the body’s ability to balance.
Learning how to crawl
To crawl on all fours, with your knees off the floor, experts recommend to follow these three simple steps:
- When on your hands and knees, place your wrists under shoulders and knees under hips
- Next, keep your back flat and straight, as you lift your knees about 2 inches off of the ground
- Finally, start crawling by moving your opposite hand and foot just 2-3 inches forward all while keeping your knees off of the ground and your back level – repeat with your other hand and foot
“Crawling, we’ve all done it, but just like when babies and toddlers squat with perfect form, over time, our adult bodies begin to resist these primal and very effective movement patterns,” Crockford said.
“As the fitness industry evolves, we are seeing more and more trainers, coaches and teams go back to these primal roots by implementing movement patterns like crawling, bending, lunging, rotating into their programming,” she said. “Crawling can be helpful to those seeking to challenge their body in a way they may have not tried since before they could walk, literally.”
As Johnson, the physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic, put it, “Crawling and other natural movement patterns are not a fad or fitness craze but a return to the fundamentals of movement.”
Yet, will crawling catch on in popularity among gym-goers? Experts aren’t so sure – but if it does, don’t be surprised if its name changes.
What’s old becomes new again
Though crawling might seem new, Shape magazine fitness director Jaclyn Emerick said she has seen exercise enthusiasts crawling before – but it was called something else.
In 2012, Equinox fitness clubs offered a class called Animal Flow, in which participants crawled around the gym animal-style, she said.
“Fitness can be like something in fashion where it was trendy or in style at one point, and then it goes away for a while, and then it comes back,” Emerick said.
“Crawling is super accessible; it’s body weight. To a lot of people, it feels new, so anything that feels new is exciting, and they’re more willing to try it, and it’s not something that requires you to do for a very long amount of time. You can maybe do some intervals with it,” she said. “Crawling doesn’t have to eliminate other good things that exist – you’re seeing people compare this, like ‘it’s the better plank’ – there’s room for lots of good things. It’s just another cool move, another cool exercise to add to your arsenal.”
Certain exercise movements that require you to focus on your balance can improve your working memory, according to a small study published last year in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.
Balance may help your brawn and brain
The study involved 65 adults between the ages of 18 and 59 who were separated into three groups. One group required the participants to complete various dynamic exercises – such as crawling and climbing trees – for two hours. The exercises also required participants to balance and be aware of their movements and the positioning of their bodies, which is called being proprioceptively aware.
“If you think of crawling or balancing, you have to plan where you’re putting your feet. You have to plan where you’re putting your hands so you don’t lose your balance. It’s this idea of us being aware, proprioceptively aware, but also being dynamic in that awareness. We have dynamic movement involved,” said Tracy Packiam Alloway, a psychologist at the University of North Florida who conducted the study with her husband, Ross Alloway.
Another group in the study participated in a yoga class, and the third group sat in a two-hour classroom-style lecture in which they learned new information. Before and after the groups participated in these tasks, they completed a working memory test.
After comparing the test scores, the researchers discovered that the adults in the exercise group had improved working memory scores compared with those in the classroom and yoga groups.
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“It was only that combination of being proprioceptively dynamic that led to that improvement in working memory,” Alloway said. “What we found was that it was only this kind of physically moving, this movement activity, that was improving working memory up to 50%. We were actually very surprised about it.”
Overall, any such dynamic movement that you can do at home is beneficial for your health, said Simpson, the physician at Stony Brook.
“I’m a big fan of anything that gets people exercising more, and easy-to-do exercises that you can do at home without specialized equipment certainly tend to do that more than other types of exercise,” he said.